Consider Wesley

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: Charles Wesley

Henry H. Knight III

While the doctrine of the Trinity is at the bedrock of Christian faith, it has also been a stumbling block for many. If it could only be explained, persons say, if it could only be made intelligible, then we could believe it. Pastors and theologians have enlisted battalions of analogies to storm the citadels of doubt, but the battle for trinitarian credibility continues.

John Wesley argued that to demand explanation as a condition of belief was not logical. In his sermon “On the Trinity,” he notes that persons “already believe many things which you cannot comprehend” (§6). We are not required to believe the manner in which God is triune, only the fact “that God is Three and One.” We should not “reject what God has revealed because “we cannot comprehend what he has revealed” (§15).

This is essential to worship God rightly, which we only do if we worship the Son and Spirit as well as the Father. Moreover, “the knowledge of the Three-one God is interwoven with all true Christian faith …” (§17). This reference to worship and interwovenness tells us that Wesley’s interest in the Trinity is not as an abstract doctrine but as what he would call “practical divinity.”

I want to devote this year’s Consider Wesley articles to examining recent books that show just how interwoven trinitarianism is in Wesleyan theology. In this article I begin with Jason E. Vickers’s Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2008).

Vickers argues that for early Christianity “the Trinity was first and foremost the proper personal name for God,” functioning as such in a catechesis and liturgy (xii). This enabled Christians to address God in prayer and worship. They could say who God is by identifying the saving activities of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

The Trinity, then, was a rule of faith for the early church, which enabled them to read Scripture, worship, and teach rightly. Vickers then makes the case that the Protestant Reformation began a shift toward Scripture itself as the rule of faith, which by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to Scripture supplanting the Trinity. Now instead of a trinitarian reading of Scripture, the question became whether the Trinity was scriptural. A host of unitarians, deists, and newly minted Arians arose who were eager to argue the Trinity is not scriptural at all.

But by then, English theologians were woefully lacking in effective counterarguments. They had come to understand faith not as trust in God but assent to the propositions of Scripture. Drawing on Scripture, they “increasingly saw the doctrine of the Trinity as a proposition or network of propositions that clearly and intelligibly described the divine nature, that is, the immanent Trinity” (xv). They had moved from the invocation of the Trinity to giving assent to propositions about the Trinity.

Let me interject a comment before continuing with Vickers’s argument. Over time in Western Christianity the immanent Trinity (who God is) became disconnected from the economic Trinity (what God has done and is doing). It was thought, for example, that any person of the Trinity could have become incarnate. So, the distinctive actions of the Father, Son, and Spirit as revealed in Scripture had little or no bearing on who God is, that is, on the immanent Trinity.

Vickers’s account shows this separation was only exacerbated by the apologetics of the orthodox theologians. “With every attempt to give a clear and intelligible account of the relationships among the three divine persons, theological reflection came to focus sharply on the immanent Trinity quite apart from the saving activities of the economic Trinity” (xvii).

Thus, many English Protestants saw the Trinity as “first and foremost a puzzle to be solved; it only requires the correct analogy. The Trinity is like a cherry pie. It is like a triangle. It is like ice, water, and steam.” But this preoccupation with the immanent Trinity left unclear “what, if anything, the Trinity has to do with creation or human salvation. The economic Trinity has to do with creation or human salvation. The economic Trinity is nowhere to be seen” (104). One of the great casualties of this shift to assent to propositions was the resulting deemphasis on “the presence and work of the Holy Spirit” in understanding Scripture and the sacramental life of the church (57).

Yet Vickers shows that, for all that was lost, there was still another side to the story. While theologians tried to explain it, “the Trinity went right on functioning as the name of God in Christian worship.” Out of that older tradition, Charles Wesley “would compose hundreds of hymns and prayers to the Trinity” (167). While others focused on the intelligibility of the Trinity, Charles Wesley was concerned with fostering the proper response to the saving activities of the economic Trinity” (173).

Charles Wesley’s robust economic trinitarianism has its roots in his recovery of a dynamic pneumatology. Vickers shows that after 1738 language of the Holy Spirit “virtually saturated” his sermons (174). His crucial move was to expand his vision of the work of the Spirit from “conviction, pardon, divine revelation, and divine empowerment” to a “doctrine of divine indwelling,” of our being partakers of the divine nature (176).

As he integrates the Spirit more fully into his theology, Charles Wesley develops a dynamic trinitarianism in which “the Spirit makes known to humans the Son, who in turn reveals the Father.” The Spirit fills human hearts with the love of God and delivers them from the power of sin (176). With the indwelling Spirit, the believer is made one with Christ, partakes of the divine nature, and is brought into fellowship with the Father and Son (177).

It is especially in his hymns that Charles Wesley “simply refused to separate the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity.” Wesley’s “reflections on the immanent Trinity presuppose at every turn what he has said regarding the economic Trinity” (181). What the hymns do is put the immanent Trinity in a doxological context.

These hymns still do that today. A complete collection of his hymns, including Gloria Patri, or Hymns on the Trinity, can be found at Duke Divinity School under “Charles Wesley’s Published Verse.” But one can begin by looking in The United Methodist Hymnal at “Maker, in Whom We Live” (#88) and “Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die” (#346) to see his trinitarianism wonderfully displayed.

Posted Oct 07, 2020